Mohamed Abd El Ghamy / Reuters

The Muslim Brotherhood struggles to come in from the cold

With Egypt’s new government moving on without it, the Brotherhood lies low and looks for allies

CAIRO — One of Hamza Sarawy’s greatest victories against Egypt’s new military-backed government was a press conference that never happened.

Sarawy is a spokesman for the Anti-Coup Alliance, a coalition of mostly Islamist parties that is the closest thing the Muslim Brotherhood has these days to a public presence in Egypt. In March the Alliance called a press conference to refute a government report on the deadly August 2013 clearing of the last major protest supporting ousted President Mohamed Morsi. Just as journalists were beginning to gather, police swept in and shut down the building and the surrounding neighborhood.

“As far as I’m concerned, that was a success story,” Sarawy said. “I exposed the regime. I revealed that you’re not allowed to speak about anything anymore.”

That the Muslim Brotherhood’s public victories have been reduced to cat-and-mouse troublemaking speaks volumes about the group’s state. The organization that dominated the aftermath of the 2011 revolution has been purged from public life on a scale that hasn’t been seen since army Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser, the founding leader of modern Egypt, nearly crushed the group in the 1950s. The vast majority of the Brotherhood’s senior leaders have been jailed, including Supreme Guide Mohammed Badea; his deputy, Kheirat al Shater; and much of the decision-making Guidance Bureau. An estimated 16,000 alleged Brotherhood members are in state custody (the Brotherhood puts the number closer to 23,000), and hundreds more have been sentenced to death, including Badea.

“If we compare numbers and casualties, it’s much worse than even Nasser,” said Dr. Islam Abdel-Rahman, a former political adviser to the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, which has been banned. “The leadership is mostly in prison. I don’t think you’ll find much top-level leadership inside or outside the country.”

With former Defense Minister Abdel Fattah el-Sisi — the man who ousted Morsi — now occupying the presidential palace, the Brotherhood’s short-term prospects in Egypt look grim. The group was officially declared a terrorist organization in December, and Sisi has said that there is no place in the new Egypt for the Muslim Brotherhood. In an interview with Reuters shortly before his election, Sisi said, “The problem is that [the Brotherhood] lost their connection with the Egyptians, lost sympathy from a majority of Egyptians … They have no real chance of a reconciliation with society.”

What remains of the Muslim Brotherhood’s senior leadership has scattered, with hubs in London, Istanbul and Doha, Qatar. But it remains a subject of intense speculation among foreign governments and Brotherhood watchers just how the group’s strategic decisions are being made and by whom.

“It’s not only their top tier. Their second tier and third tier are in jail. Almost all of the political people are incarcerated,” said Issandr El Amrani, a longtime Egypt resident and North Africa director for the International Crisis Group. “The reality is that this is an organization in complete disarray.”

But some insist that the Brotherhood’s famously disciplined and adaptable structure has enabled it to endure.

“The top three tiers are gone, so tier four moves up,” said Dr. Wael Haddara, a former political adviser to Morsi. Haddara, like Sarawy and Abdel-Rahman, denies he is a member of the Brotherhood but said he remains in contact with senior officials and has acted as one of the group’s ambassadors in meetings with foreign governments.

“From what I understand, the hierarchy is still very much intact,” Haddara said. “The communications have had to devolve to more low-tech and more secure methods. I don’t think [Brotherhood leaders] are sending a lot of emails.”

Plainclothes policemen detain a Muslim Brotherhood supporter after clashes broke out during a demonstration outside Cairo University on May 14.
Mohamed Abd El Ghamy / Reuters

For decades under deposed President Hosni Mubarak and his predecessors, the Muslim Brotherhood was an illegal entity. But it was a ban characterized by loopholes, exceptions and selective enforcement. The group was barred from forming a political party, but hundreds of Brotherhood members ran for parliament as nominal independents and became the largest opposition bloc. Sometimes Brotherhood members were rounded up by the hundreds; other times the group felt secure enough to host large public meals during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. Brotherhood leaders were never interviewed by official media, and state television referred to the organization only as “the banned group.” But at the same time, Brotherhood officials were freely accessible in a modest office in Cairo’s Manial district with a Muslim Brotherhood sign on the door.

Those days are gone now. The organization that steamrolled through every postrevolutionary election it contested has been reduced to a hit-and-run political guerrilla force.

“The Brotherhood that existed before 2011 — I don’t think that exists anymore,” said Joshua Stacher, a Kent State political-science professor and longtime Brotherhood expert. “We don’t even know for sure what the command structure looks like anymore.”

In the absence of coordinated senior leadership, the group has devolved to its most basic elements: the usras, or “families,” according to both Stacher and Amrani.

These are the eight-to-12-person local cells that are the fundamental cogs of the Brotherhood machine. Each new Brotherhood member is assigned to an usra as part of their initiation, and the working relationships made there often endure for decades. Now the usras have become the core method for low-tech Brotherhood communication and coordination in Egypt.

This local devolution of authority may prove effective in allowing the Brotherhood to keep functioning under siege. But Stacher said that makes it much harder for the Brotherhood’s remaining leadership to control the actions of individual cells if they choose to launch unauthorized protests or violent attacks against security forces.

“On the government side, you may have lost the ability to pick up the phone and tell [a Brotherhood official], ‘Call your people back,’” Stacher said.

The Muslim Brotherhood made a decision starting with Rabaa to throw in their lot with the revolution.

Dr. Wael Haddara

former political adviser to Mohamed Morsi

Observers and allies of the Brotherhood say the group’s strategy has settled into a multilevel waiting game. With the newly elected Sisi in power, the Brotherhood is lying comparatively low for now. The group launches occasional street protests (which inevitably lead to clashes with security) in order to maintain a street-level presence in Egypt.

“Keeping up the anti-coup spirit in the street is important. It’s not just creating pressure on the regime. It’s also creating a nucleus for anti-coup Egyptians to cluster around,” said Abdel-Rahman, who admitted that the harsh crackdowns on all protests play into the Brotherhood strategy.

Meanwhile, overseas representatives such as Haddara continue to marshal international support. The group is waiting for Sisi’s honeymoon to end, given Egypt’s daunting economic and political problems. The economy is essentially being floated by massive donations from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Sarawy of the Anti-Coup Alliance predicted Sisi would face serious domestic unrest and economic protests within two months. Other Brotherhood allies said it would take about a year.

“Now they’re shifting to a strategy of long-term resistance with the hope that Sisi’s support is fickle,” Amrani said. “They’re hoping that in a year or two, as the economic problems persist and the Saudis get tired of bankrolling the whole thing, then the tide will turn and there will be an opportunity.”

One of the most important aspects of current Brotherhood strategy will also be one of the most difficult: forging partnerships with secularist revolutionary groups that also oppose military rule.

Morsi’s reign — particularly the bitter struggle to push through his controversial constitution — burned almost every bridge between the Brotherhood and Egypt’s secularist revolutionary forces. Many of the same activists who reluctantly backed Morsi in the 2012 election (as a civilian alternative to the military-backed Ahmed Shafiq) grew disillusioned over the way he and the Brotherhood behaved in power.

By the time Sisi launched his popularly backed coup, Morsi’s support had shrunk to the Brotherhood’s hard core. Prominent revolutionary backers such as Google executive Wael Ghonim and April 6 Movement founder Ahmed Maher were openly advocating Morsi’s ouster one year later — although many of these activists warned against relying on the military to accomplish that goal.

Eleven months later, that political isolation persists despite the Brotherhood’s ongoing attempts to repair those alliances and rally support. The Anti-Coup Alliance includes few non-Islamist elements, and attempts to forge fresh alliances with secularist groups have been consistently rebuffed.

In the wake of its violent downfall and the bloody ending of its protest sit-in outside Cairo’s Rabaa al-Adawiya Mosque, the Brotherhood has publicly reverted to its original revolutionary rhetoric, casting itself as the defender of the principles of the 2011 revolution and the true opponent of military rule. It’s a strategy that so far has prompted eye rolling and ridicule from secularist revolutionaries, who view the Brotherhood as having betrayed those principles at almost every opportunity in the course of a cynical and disastrous postrevolutionary power grab.

“The Muslim Brotherhood made a decision starting with Rabaa to throw in their lot with the revolution,” Haddara said. “Clearly not everyone on the revolutionary spectrum appreciates that position or are on board with it.”

Haddara, an emergency-room doctor who now lives in Canada, said many of those secularist revolutionaries are essentially waiting for a public apology before they will even deal with the group again. 

If so, they’re likely to keep waiting. The Brotherhood in recent months has begun internally debating the mistakes and missteps of the Morsi era, Haddara said, but those discussions are so far being kept behind closed doors.

“It’s happening now. I’m hearing more and more self-criticism,” he said.

The one option that doesn’t seem to be on the table is any sort of negotiation or reconciliation with the current military-backed government. There were rumors last fall that the two sides were secretly in contact. But Amrani said any chance of a negotiated outcome died in December, when the government labeled the Brotherhood a terrorist organization.

“That changed things tremendously,” he said. “There are no negotiations that are possible right now. They’re too far apart, and the Brotherhood and the regime are both unwilling … The regime is only interested in negotiating terms of surrender.”

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